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An intimate journey from Townsville to London

Michelle Ryan shares her inspiring story of dancing despite suffering from Multiple Sclerosis...

Born and bred in Townsville, I dreamt of a life in the arts from a young age. After graduating from QUT and working for Queensland Arts Council, it was a privilege to be invited to work with Meryl Tankard. My first contract with Meryl was in Canberra before joining Australian Dance Theatre under her directorship in Adelaide. After performing, touring and working as her assistant in prestigious venues in Australia and around the world, life changed at the age of 30 when I was diagnosised with Multiple Sclerosis. My performance career ceased immediately.

At the age of 40, after a long hiatus, I was invited to perform in the Brisbane Festival season of Out of Context – for Pina by Belgium choreographer Alain Platell of Les Ballet C de la B. Surprised by the invitation, I agreed and the experience was both nerve racking and exhilarating.

My first reaction was to ask Alain if he knew that I now used a walking stick for mobility and that I was at an age when most dancers had retired. It was a strange time to be contemplating returning to the stage. There was an amazing moment when Alain asked me what I was afraid of. I replied that “I was scared I would fall over”. His response was beautiful and simple,” wouldn’t you just get up and keep going?”

It was a light bulb moment.

After the performance he challenged me by asking why I had stopped dancing as he said, “you are a dancer”. I couldn’t answer him but it made me think of myself differently. For so long I had felt drained of all colour and beauty but at that moment I knew that things were going to change. The experience sparked a passion in me for artists with disability to be acknowledged, supported and celebrated.

From there, my return to the arts snowballed with fantastic opportunities to return to life as an artist and creator. Most fundamental was the development and premiere of a new dance theatre work, Intimacy, created in collaboration with Torque Show. The director, Ingrid Weisfelt and performer Vincent Crowley were and continue to be trusted friends from the Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre days. Arts Queensland, Australia Council for the Arts and a Brisbane Powerhouse Powerlab residency supported the second development of the work. It was a fantastic creative environment and our development showing brought great encouragement and peer feedback for the further development and presentation of Intimacy.

Intimacy gained momentum. We received further funding from Australia Council for the Arts, Arts Victoria (who had funded the initial development) and support from the Malthouse in Melbourne to bring the production to fruition. The work premiered in Melbourne as part of the Malthouse Helium program in August 2014.

The most amazing part of the Intimacy journey was securing a season in London at the Southbank Centre before the production had reached its Australian premiere. Wendy Martin of the Southbank Centre heard of Intimacy and was keen to discuss possibilities for its presentation. As a result Intimacy was programmed as the only international production at the Unlimited Festival in September 2014. Reviews for the work were amazing in London and Melbourne and prove that when the product is strong and there is a little bit of belief and support, you can make things soar.



Michelle Ryan has enjoyed a career that has spanned 25 years in the arts. Michelle worked for Queensland Arts Council before joining Meryl Tankard in Canberra and Adelaide as part of Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre. She was a performer with Tankard for 7 ½ years followed by projects in Europe as Tankard’s assistant which included the Andrew Lloyd Webber West End Production, The Beautiful Game. On returning to Australia, Michelle was a founding member of Splintergroup creating the productions lawn and roadkill, and she worked at Dancenorth for five years in various capacities.

Michelle returned to performing in 2011 as a guest artist for Alain Plattel Out of Context for Pina by Les Ballet C de la B followed by Take Up Thy Bed and Walk by Gaelle Mellis in 2012. Michelle was appointed Artist Director of Restless Dance Theatre in 2013. She has recently performed in London at the Unlimited Festival and at the Malthouse Theatre in Torque Show’s Intimacy.

Feature image: Rachel Roberts. Author portrait: Shane Reid